Huntington's "The Who & the What": Not for Prophet

Aila Peck & Rom Barkhordar in "The Who & the What"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

All are welcome here”: it says it right in the program of the play The Who & the What, by Ayad Akhtar, and the Huntington Theatre Company goes on to demonstrate just that with its very engaging production of this very funny play about a very serious subject. Disgraced, the playwright's previous work, was the most produced original new play in this country last season, as well as a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, a work that was met by both critical and commercial success, and also presented last year by Huntington. That play was about Muslim characters who were struggling with their “foreignness” as Muslim American citizens, and was tragic. This new play looks inward, and with an ample supply of whimsical humor. Rather than being about identity politics, it portrays how Islam is in conflict with itself, with the core of the play being a particular generation gap. Akhtar has stated that his new play was written to counter widespread misinformation and deconstruct assumptions about Muslim communities in this country, by humanizing them. He further contends that access to the real wisdom in Islamic tradition is blocked by literal scriptural adherence, with misunderstandings which can be expressed theatrically. Too often the prophet (never named, respecting Muslim tradition) has been, as Akhtar puts it, “framed and re-framed...told and then mistold to justify people's decisions”. Akhtar took as his inspiration two similar sources, the television comedy “All in the Family” and Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew” (and its musical version,“Kiss Me Kate”), with all of their misogyny intact, but involving a Pakistani-American family. The issues and contradictions that develop between dutiful daughters toward their fathers and their desire to assimilate are obvious in the playwright's tale of one particular family. It's quite reminiscent of a certain other play, a musical with Jewish characters, about a milkman with five daughters, but this one unfolds on the “steppes” of Atlanta, Georgia in 2014.

This is indeed high praise, as the author has succeeded in portraying another memorable father, a sort of Afzal on the Roof, in the character of Afzal (Rom Barkhordar), a successful taxi company owner with two daughters of marriageable age. The elder Zarina (Aila Peck), a Harvard grad, is engaged in writing about Islam and women. She meets Eli (Joseph Marrella), a young man recently converted to Islam who runs the local mosque and soup kitchen, and who bridges the gap between her modernized life and her traditional (religious) heritage. Upon discovering her latest manuscript, her father is horrified, as is her sister Mahwish (Turna Mete), engaged to her longtime boyfriend but nurturing a crush on her GRE instructor. She too has strong convictions about people with strong opinions about Islam and women, especially those who are neither. As she puts it: “Everyone's always making a big deal about women in Islam. We're just fine”. Meanwhile, Zarina had broken up with her non-Muslim boyfriend, since her father didn't want her to marry outside the faith. Afzal, in a move not to be revealed here, gives new meaning to the concept of arranged marriage. And Zarina's latest writing centers on the mandatory wearing of the hijab, as she bemoans: “I hate what the faith does to women...(by a) story that 's used as an excuse to hide us”. At the same time, Afzal confides to Eli the telling statement that Zarina “has more power over you than she really wants...she can't help it. And she won't be happy until you break her.” (Like a horse?)

At the core of this work is the fundamental question: “what is Islamic feminism?” Is the term an oxymoron? While acknowledging the spiritual equality of men and women in Islam, there remain the social and political realities of gender inequality. Basic intolerance takes many forms, of course, and Islam possesses no claim to the only faith-based discrimination against women (Jewish women behind screens, Catholic women unable to lead their communities, and so forth). Akhtar asserts that when he wrote that play he never expected to see that the “kind of degradation of rhetoric could exist anywhere but the theater...but now we're living in a world where what's happening on stage is not all that controversial”. In his striving to “reconcile contemporary life with traditional Islamic culture”, and “what it means to be Muslim in America”, the playwright concedes that “Islam is of course more than just a faith-based system, but a way of life, a culture, a system of values”. There remains the question of how to recognize the potential empowerment of women and include them in the current political milieu, which has made the issues this play confronts all the more significant. When told by Eli that he understands her pain in dealing with Islam, Zarina counters that he “didn't have to grow up as a woman inside it."

Barkhordar, with moving and barely controlled ferocity, creates a character for the ages, with his own narrowness (speaking of his older daughter's former boyfriend Ryan as “Catholic. Irish. You know the type.”). Peck in turn provides his perfect foil, unable to restrain from incendiary and deeply felt proclamations (“You erased me. And I let you” and “Hell is a metaphor for human suffering”). Mete and Marrella both serve to support both points of view as Peck defends her all-too-human, perhaps blasphemous, portrait of the prophet that attempts to help Muslim women and “give them permission to ask questions” about "Who" the prophet really was and "What" he was really like. This quartet of actors is a marvel, exquisitely tuned by Director M. Bevin O'Gara, with fascinating Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, appropriate Costume Design by Mary Lauve (the kind of clothing people would actually wear), intricate Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand, fine Sound Design by M. L. Dogg, and contributive Original Music by Saraswathi Jones.

This is a play to cherish, with its insight and profundity beneath a very welcoming sense of humor. The final curtain line is a gem, also not to be revealed here, that sums up the playwright's genius and respects the company's stated commitment to “telling stories of all races and cultures...a platform...to expand our definition, recognition and understanding of the human experience...
resisting fear and intolerance...to cultivate generosity, artistic excellence and radical hospitality.” It is devoutly to be wished that Akhtar's next play will echo this radical hospitality and reflect the stark reality of what our American Muslim fellow citizens must now navigate in a profoundly hostile administration. That play might well be The Where & the When.

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